My favorite of Collins' novels besides Armadale and possibly his best known, The Woman in White is an excellent Victorian mystery/sensation novel; it...moreMy favorite of Collins' novels besides Armadale and possibly his best known, The Woman in White is an excellent Victorian mystery/sensation novel; it was originally classified as the latter, but it seems clear that Collins was beginning to develop the mystery genre. It's almost impossible to go into the plot in any detail without ruining the novel - when it was published, Collins especially requested that reviewers not include spoilers in their review. It's terrifically convoluted, but briefly, it's the story of Laura Fairlie, a young heiress, and her friends' attempts to rescue her from a nightmare of intrigue: mistaken identity, kidnapping, insanity, poison....
The novel is narrated by a succession of different characters, who are superbly delineated. Each section is long enough for us to get to know the narrator, and the styles are subtly and believably different. Two of the characters in particular are memorable: the flamboyantly sinister Count Fosco, one of the villains, and the downright, vivacious Marian Halcombe, Laura's half-sister and rescuer. Strikingly, Marian is described as being sensual of form, but dark and ugly of face (the notes suggest that her physical description is based on George Eliot), unlike the vast majority of Victorian heroines (and Laura herself, who is fair and pretty), but her vivid, courageous personality is such that she wins over the other characters and the reader upon meeting her.(less)
Poor Miss Finch was written after Man and Wife, and again, Collins tries to mix his familiar sensation novel style with other things, this time with e...morePoor Miss Finch was written after Man and Wife, and again, Collins tries to mix his familiar sensation novel style with other things, this time with even less success. He does do interesting things with his blind heroine, Lucilla Finch; his presentation of her personality and the effects on her of her blindness have been widely acknowledged to be well-researched and convincing. Unfortunately, the sensationalistic plot she's given, involving identical twins, just didn't work well for me, nor did most of the characters (save for the narrator, the charmingly direct Madame Pratolungo). (less)
No Name is the second of the four novels generally thought to be Collins's best, and I quite agree with general opinion. The plot centers on two siste...moreNo Name is the second of the four novels generally thought to be Collins's best, and I quite agree with general opinion. The plot centers on two sisters, Magdalen and Norah Vanstone, who find out that when their parents die that they weren't married at the times of the sisters' births, making them illegitimate; thus, they are disinherited by law and cast out from their childhood home by their estranged uncle. Norah submits to her fate and finds work as a governess, but Magdalen vows revenge and embarks on a series of plots to regain their inheritance.
This was a fairly long book (700+ pages), and I read it in one day, only putting it down when I absolutely had to. It must have been almost unbearable to read as a serial. The level of suspense Collins maintains is astonishing, and the characters are remarkably vivid, particularly the rebellious Magdalen herself, her accomplice the roguish and wily Captain Wragge ("the unblushing, the invincible, unchangeable, Wragge!"), and her main enemy, the devious Mrs. Lecount. But No Name isn't all about the sensational plot and characters; it's also a penetrating portrayal of the Victorian society and laws which drive Magdalen almost to ruin. (less)
The Moonstone is generally thought to be one of the finest English detective novels; T.S. Eliot, in fact, called it "the first, the longest, and the b...moreThe Moonstone is generally thought to be one of the finest English detective novels; T.S. Eliot, in fact, called it "the first, the longest, and the best". The relatively simple (for Collins) plot involves the Moonstone, a mystical yellow diamond; stolen from a shrine in India, it is eventually given to Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday and stolen again that same night.
The search for the thief and for the Moonstone is narrated by several different characters; this is a device Collins also used to good effect in The Woman in White, and here he uses it again in order to limit the amount of information given out to the reader by each narrator. This isn't just a narrative gimmick, though; Collins takes care to make sure that the narrator's voices are wonderfully differentiated. The two most interesting narrators (and probably the two most dissimilar, yet utterly believable) are Gabriel Betteredge, the homely steward to the Verinder family, who has recourse to Robinson Crusoe and a pipe when troubled, and Miss Clack, their sanctimonious busybody of a cousin, given to strewing tracts everywhere and sermonizing. (There's a wonderful bit with Miss Clack and a cab driver: when she doesn't tip him, he swears at her, whereupon she instantly gives him a tract and he drives off in fury: "Quite useless, I am happy to say! I sowed the good seed, in spite of him, by throwing a second tract in at the window of the cab.")
Compared to Collins' other novels, The Moonstone is quieter, less contrived in plot, and less melodramatic, yet it is as gripping as any of them. (less)
After the success of his four great novels of the 1860s (The Woman in White, Armadale, No Name, The Moonstone), Wilkie Collins wrote Man and Wife. Her...moreAfter the success of his four great novels of the 1860s (The Woman in White, Armadale, No Name, The Moonstone), Wilkie Collins wrote Man and Wife. Here, Collins melded the sensation novel form with a critique of Victorian society: specifically, its inequitable marriage laws and the rights and legal status of women. Unfortunately, the characters are a little too cardboard to make either side of the meld work as well as they might have. The heroine, Anne, who is promised marriage by one man only to believe that she might have unknowingly wed another, is too unselfish and long-suffering for me to feel much sympathy with her. At the same time, the villain is presented as an exemplar of an odd belief of Collins's, that Victorian society was obsessed with physical manliness and strength, which makes the villain feel unrealistic as well.
Still, the plot is suspenseful, particularly in the last third of the story, and there was one character (Sir Patrick, who struggles to save Anne from her fate) whom I liked as much as any in Collins's earlier novels. If you've already read his four best novels, Man and Wife is definitely worth your time. (less)
While Hide and Seek pales in comparison to the best of Collins, I found it oddly engaging - a blend of domestic comedy and melodrama. The plot was rat...moreWhile Hide and Seek pales in comparison to the best of Collins, I found it oddly engaging - a blend of domestic comedy and melodrama. The plot was rather predictable, but the touches of humor give Hide and Seek a charm entirely absent from Basil; in particular, I liked a scene in which the artist Valentine Blyth is floridly presenting his new works of art, to the sotto voce accompaniments of the two critics he's invited. Hide and Seek is not one of Collins's finest novels, but it's a pleasant diversion for those who have already read his more famous novels. (less)
The Dead Secret isn't as good as the string of novels which immediately followed it (including The Woman in White and Armadale), but it's definitely w...moreThe Dead Secret isn't as good as the string of novels which immediately followed it (including The Woman in White and Armadale), but it's definitely worth reading, with a good measure of suspense and action, as well as complex characters, particularly Sarah Leeson, the woman who hides the "dead secret" of the title, and Rosamond Frankland, the woman who discovers it. (less)
I can't imagine why Armadale isn't as well-known as The Woman in White and The Moonstone - wow, what a fabulous book. The plot is even more tortuous t...moreI can't imagine why Armadale isn't as well-known as The Woman in White and The Moonstone - wow, what a fabulous book. The plot is even more tortuous than The Woman in White and thus fairly indescribable (particularly without spoilers) but it turns largely on issues of identity, with no less than five characters named Alan Armadale - happily, only two of them appear for any length of time, and one of those goes by an alias.
Easily the most compelling character in the book, though, is the villainess, Lydia Gwilt, a woman of intelligence, charisma, and daring, superbly drawn by Collins. Much of the book is told through her diary entries, so that even though she's wicked and clearly the villain of the book, it's easy to sympathize with her - in fact, I don't think it would be easy not to sympathize with her, given her history and personality. Lydia surpasses even the lively Marian Halcombe of The Woman in White.
An absorbing Victorian sensation novel - murder, arson, blackmail, bigamy, you name it. Braddon's writing style is nothing special, but the plot is fa...moreAn absorbing Victorian sensation novel - murder, arson, blackmail, bigamy, you name it. Braddon's writing style is nothing special, but the plot is fast-paced and never dull, and the main character is a nicely manipulative villainess. I'll have to read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins soon, as this book is often compared to it. (I have since read The Woman in White twice and think it superior.)(less)
Published right after Lady Audley's Secret, Aurora Floyd was almost as popular. Aurora Floyd is a newlywed with a deadly secret, and although (like La...morePublished right after Lady Audley's Secret, Aurora Floyd was almost as popular. Aurora Floyd is a newlywed with a deadly secret, and although (like Lady Audley's) Aurora's secret is fairly easy to guess early on, that doesn't slow down the fast pace and drama of the novel. Braddon's novels are being heralded recently as challenges to the Victorian notion of ideal ladyhood, but in the other books of hers I've read, those unusual women receive suitable punishments for their violations of femininity; Aurora suffers but isn't punished as drastically as Lady Audley or Olivia Marchmont (of John Marchmont's Legacy) - a refreshing change. (less)
When her father dies leaving only debts behind, Lady Isabel Vane marries the good-looking, hard-working lawyer Archibald Carlyle. When she becomes foo...moreWhen her father dies leaving only debts behind, Lady Isabel Vane marries the good-looking, hard-working lawyer Archibald Carlyle. When she becomes foolishly jealous of him, she runs off with a scapegrace aristocrat, abandoning husband, children, and respectability.
This bestselling Victorian sensation novel is too long, awkwardly written, and overly moralizing, but I found it compellingly readable regardless. It's mostly a sensation novel, anyway, full of death, desertion, adultery, and disguise, as any good sensation novel ought to be, though in an unusually domestic, village setting.
I did get tired of Wood's moralizing and addressing the reader directly with dire warnings of the fate lying in wait for wives who do not toe the line; on the other hand, she does sort of backwardly show by this the restrictions her characters must live under and create sympathy for them thereby. Generally, I'd take Wilkie Collins any day, or Mary Elizabeth Braddon, but I did enjoy this and found it hard to put down at night (and equally hard to pick up -- it's heavy!). (less)
Reading Hardy's Desperate Remedies put me in the mood for sensation novels, so of course I went to Wilkie Collins; this is the last of his books I own...moreReading Hardy's Desperate Remedies put me in the mood for sensation novels, so of course I went to Wilkie Collins; this is the last of his books I own and hadn't read. Collins chooses a woman for his protagonist, Valeria Woodville, who marries and then finds out that her husband was tried and not found innocent (the Scottish court's verdict was "not proven") of poisoning his first wife. When her husband deserts her because he can't stand the shame of her knowing about his past, she determines to find the truth and prove him innocent.
One thing I love about Collins is his strong women, and Valeria is a good example: she's clever, brave, and determined (not to say stubborn). Even though she does submit several times to her husband's judgment, she often ends up doing what she wants anyway. However, although there are other interesting characters, like the eccentric "man-machine" Miserrimus Dexter, I thought the plot was creaky and overly...constructed, I guess. Collins is always about cleverly constructed plots, but in the best of his novels, he conceals the construction with marvelous atmosphere and suspense, which he doesn't manage to pull off in The Law and the Lady. (less)
Oh, this was quite strange, but worth reading. It was Hardy's first published novel, and it's most unlike his other books, an odd mishmash of romance...moreOh, this was quite strange, but worth reading. It was Hardy's first published novel, and it's most unlike his other books, an odd mishmash of romance and Gothic and sensation novel. When Cytherea Graye takes a position as lady's maid to eccentric, beautiful Miss Aldclyffe, she is drawn under the influence of the charismatic Manston, Miss Aldclyffe's steward, and entangled in a web of romantic and violent intrigue.
It's overwritten (never a two-syllable word where a four-syllable one can be used instead), and the plot takes too long to get going, but it's oddly compelling and atmospheric anyway. It's full of quotations and allusions, which often weigh it down (like the multisyllabic vocabulary), but they're often used in an interestingly subversive fashion. There's an ongoing allusion to The Aeneid, for instance, but the character whose first name is Aeneas is far from noble or pious, and a former prostitute is compared to the virginal Camilla for the courage they bear in common.(less)